• AFP-JIJI

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Turkmenistan resumed its domestic soccer season on Sunday, with fans returning to stadiums in one of the few countries yet to declare a case of COVID-19.

Around 300 people attended a top-of-the table clash between last season’s champions Altyn Asyr and league leaders Kopetdag in a 20,000-capacity stadium in Ashgabat, the nation’s capital.

The two teams played out a 1-1 draw with both goals coming in the second half.

Like several other fans interviewed by AFP, none of whom wore masks, Murad, a 60-year-old Kopetdag fan, said he had no fear of the coronavirus pandemic and planned to continue attending games.

“Sport kills all viruses,” he joked. “When your favorite team wins, it lifts your immunity!”

He hopes his team can remain at the top of the division.

“This club is a legendary club,” Murad said.

The deeply authoritarian Central Asian nation followed the lead of other countries around the world when it suspended its eight-team league in March, just three games into the season.

The national soccer federation cited recommendations by the health ministry and the World Health Organization for preventing the spread of the illness.

But a month later, and despite international concerns that Turkmen authorities are underplaying the threat of the virus, soccer returned to the gas-rich country.

“Joy boosts our immunity,” joked Ashir Yusupov, a 34-year-old entrepreneur and soccer fan said before the game.

“We have no coronavirus, so why not restart our league?”

Three former Soviet states have bucked the global trend of suspending professional leagues: Belarus, Tajikistan and now, Turkmenistan.

Global interest in the Belarusian league has surged on the back of its decision, while the Tajikistan’s Super Cup final earlier this month attracted a curious multilingual following online.

But Belarus, which has confirmed 4,779 coronavirus cases, has been strongly criticized for allowing fans to attend games.

Tajikistan has begun its season with matches held behind closed doors, even as its authoritarian government, like that of Turkmenistan, continues to insist there are no cases in the country.

Turkmenistan has never been known as a soccer powerhouse and the country’s main sports channel chose to show handball over Sunday’s game. Soccer is also not among the sports promoted by sports-mad president Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.

On World Health Day on April 7, the president was shown on state television riding a horse and a bicycle as state employees engaged in mass exercise sessions across the country.

Such large public events have prompted observers to question how seriously the government is taking the pandemic.

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